Temporary shortage of RCMP emergency operators leads to patchwork of solutions

A lack of regular staff who handle incoming emergency phone calls to RCMP on P.E.I. led to a patchwork of temporary solutions that has now been fixed, according to an RCMP P.E.I. spokesperson.

Emergency operators are 'a critical lifeline between the public and the officers on the road'

'It certainly caused us some concern at the time,' said Staff-Sgt. Kevin Baillie of the staffing situation during the summer with Operational Communications Centre of RCMP on P.E.I. (Randy McAndrew/CBC News)

A lack of regular staff who handle incoming emergency phone calls to RCMP on P.E.I. led to a patchwork of temporary solutions that has now been fixed, according to an RCMP P.E.I. spokesperson.

Recent numbers obtained through access to information by CBC News show P.E.I.'s RCMP Operational Communications Centre (OCC) had a vacancy rate of 55 per cent last year — the second highest in the country, behind Nunavut's 66 per cent. The national rate was a little over 27 per cent. Those numbers were as of Oct. 2017.

The vacancy rates have raised workplace concerns in some other provinces.

There are 11 telecommunications operators on P.E.I., who work out of RCMP headquarters in Charlottetown, covering shifts around the clock, seven days a week.

Operators with the OCC are civilians on contract with the RCMP to handle calls transferred from 9-1-1 that require police involvement.

For example when someone calls 9-1-1 because they've been assaulted or someone has broken into their home, the OCC operator keeps the caller on the line until officers arrive.

'Vital service'

"The OCC operators provide a very vital service," said Staff-Sgt. Kevin Baillie.

"When they're out there at night, often a member is going to something alone. They're the lifeline for a member who's on the road."  

Baillie told CBC the 55 per cent vacancy rate was on paper and "there was no actual risk to the public or the officers on the road" because all the shifts were filled with a variety of backfill solutions.

'Perfect storm'

Baillie described 2017 as "kind of a perfect storm" with two operators leaving on short notice in the summer to take other jobs and two other operators on leave that was extended. RCMP also had some staff on vacation.

"I'll be honest with you. It certainly caused us some concern at the time, because the OCC is such a critical lifeline between the public and the officers on the road."

I'll be honest with you. It certainly caused us some concern at the time, because the OCC is such a critical lifeline between the public and the officers on the road.— Staff-Sgt. Kevin Baillie

To address the shortage Baillie said RCMP had some operators work overtime. It also brought back some former operators who were working in other positions, and brought in some trained OCC operators from Nova Scotia for one to two weeks at a time "to ensure there were no shortages."

Even the OCC manager who usually wouldn't handle calls stepped in "to make sure people got their breaks and that we were staffed at a safe level," said Baillie.

That safe level is at least two operators on every shift -- three during special events.

Permanent vacancies filled

Baillie said he was not aware of any delays in emergency calls to RCMP as a result of the vacant positions. "The calls were answered and dispatched in an expedient manner," he said.

He also said that the OCC manager has recently hired two people to fill the vacancies of staff who left their jobs, and that the two vacancies for those on leave are being backfilled.

He said RCMP on P.E.I. haven't needed to bring in operators from outside the province since the summer.